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Week In Politics: Senate Votes Not To Call Witnesses In Trump Impeachment


NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving is with us now. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And the new normal - you must have been up much of the night.

ELVING: It wasn't that bad. The Senate finished at about 8 o'clock. Lately, this week, we would call that banker's hours.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, that's right. And I know you were thinking even after it was over. It's a big week coming up. Iowa caucuses on Monday, State of the Union address on Tuesday, and then the vote on the articles of impeachment on Wednesday. So let's start at the end with the impeachment vote. Where does the thing stand now?

ELVING: The Senate is taking the weekend off, and the rest of the country is, too. I believe there's a football game of some kind on Sunday - pretty big one. Looking forward to that. Then, the trial resumes on Monday for four hours of closing arguments, after which, and this is really what changed last night, individual senators may make speeches explaining themselves, explaining their thinking and their votes. Those speeches will happen on Monday and Tuesday and up until 4 o'clock on Wednesday, when all debate will end and the final vote will happen.

Now, those speeches are not really part of the trial per se. They're just senators getting a chance to express themselves after having sat quietly for a couple of weeks. And at that time, that final vote will require not just a simple majority but a two-thirds majority - in other words, 67 votes - which would require 20 Republicans to cross the aisle. So no one expects that to happen.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about that 51-49 vote yesterday against the Democrats' request to call in additional witnesses and bring in documents. You know, why couldn't they get more Republicans to cross the aisle?

ELVING: There was a great deal of pressure brought to bear, both from the leadership, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell runs a very tight ship, and from the White House. Obviously, the president's team didn't want John Bolton, for example, the former national security adviser whose book manuscript has been so much in the news this week, to be testifying in this trial, testifying on TV. It was too much of a potential game-changer. And the prospect of additional witnesses at all meant the trial would last well into February. So it was close on the issue of witnesses because, remember; that needed only a simple majority, not two-thirds.

Fifty-one votes meant the Republicans only had three votes to spare. They did lose two, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah. Two other Republicans who could have turned the tide turned the other way instead and opposed hearing from witnesses. They were Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

MONTAGNE: And what did those two have to say about that?

ELVING: Quite different explanations, really. Murkowski said she was just very disappointed with the whole process. She thought it had been way too partisan from the start, and she just wanted it to end. Alexander - and this is quite interesting. Lamar Alexander's retiring after this year. He's not running again, so many thought he would feel like a free agent. In the end, he said he didn't need to hear more witnesses because he was convinced the president did the things he's being accused of. He just didn't think those things were serious enough to warrant his removal from office. So guilty of something, but not guilty of something grave enough for the ultimate punishment.

MONTAGNE: Well, the State of the Union address is Tuesday night. A White House official said the final vote on the articles of impeachment won't interfere with that address. But will the address interfere with the vote at all?

ELVING: It's hard to imagine it would. There do not seem to be a lot of minds that are not made up. And, look; the White House says this is going to be another State of the Union in the style of the previous ones that have been delivered by President Trump. And those have been distinguished by how little they're like the usual speeches by President Trump. In this high ceremonial setting, he has stuck to the presidential tone and to the teleprompter script.

And if I could just recall for a moment, this is going to be a deja vu moment in a way because President Bill Clinton, in the midst of his impeachment trial back in 1999, gave a State of the Union speech and never mentioned the fact that he was being tried on impeachment charges in the Senate at the same time.

MONTAGNE: So do we expect Trump, this president, to mention that?

ELVING: We don't know, and it's possible that he will. It would certainly be characteristic of him to tear into some of his critics. But on the other hand, in the past and in the indications that we've been getting lately from the White House, he's not planning on that. And they are, apparently, trying to talk him out of it if he is thinking about doing it.

MONTAGNE: OK, the Iowa caucuses - waiting for months and months for them to finally happen. The candidates are probably at pancake breakfasts - sorry - right now - I can say that - breakfasts right now as we speak.

ELVING: Absolutely. You know, those pancakes are among the tests that we impose on our prospective presidents. It's not in the Constitution, but it does happen. These senators, although, at this point, I think, would have to say they were sincerely grateful to be eating pancakes in Iowa, just to be out of Washington, talking to Iowans again and not sitting in the Senate chamber listening to more hours of presentations from lawyers.

MONTAGNE: That is NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks very much.

ELVING: Thank you, Renee.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO SONG, "TOWN AND COUNTRY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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